By Chad Ingram
Published Sept. 1 2016
Residents of Bob Lake say their boats are being held hostage.
Lake residents packed Minden Hills council chambers during an Aug. 25 meeting and as David Gibb explained are upset that access to a long-used boat launch off Bob Lake Road has been blocked by the property’s owners.
The launch is located on private property.
Lake residents have used the launch for at least 50 years Gibb said and they are looking for Minden Hills to help remedy the situation preferably through a prescriptive easement that would guarantee residents right of way over the land.
Gibb noted that stone barricades were placed at the launch earlier this summer after most boat owners had already put their vessels in the lake for the season.
“We ask for assurances regarding these haul-outs and further we ask the township to accomplish this seek an immediate injunction for the removal of all barriers that violate our decades-old open enjoyment” Gibb told councillors. “We ask for a briefing on the state of the development if any of an alternative public ramp site and we expect or we hope that we will hear further on this. Finally we ask that the township seek a prescriptive easement.”
Prescriptive easements can be enforced in situations where there has been a minimum of 20 years of unchallenged use of a property and Gibb referenced Court of Appeal decisions he said were applicable to the Bob Lake scenario.
For decades many residents and the township itself were under the mistaken impression that the boat launch was a public one. It was maintained by the township and advertised as a public launch on its website.
Gibb added the launch is also the natural and easiest access point to the lake for first responders.
Gibb said he realized council needed to be mindful of uniformity in conducting its business and be wary of setting precedents.
“But this is a precedent” he said. “And how the township handles this precedent is going to be watched very carefully. This is the hand that’s been dealt not by the township and not by property owners involved. We will remind you that this hand was dealt after the majority of boats were corralled in the lake. This hand must be played for the greater good and playing it falls to the township which like everyone has been caught off guard.”
Bob Lake has some 250 properties and Gibb said about 135 property owners have been affected by the blocking of the boat launch.
“Is not government at every level obligated to enforce and uphold the rights of its citizens?” he asked. “Should there not be a moral imperative at work here? The hand that’s been dealt is neither pretty nor easy but it must be played and with skill. We have two owners of one property who are holding 450 taxpayer owners of 250 properties hostage. Is this right? Is this just? Are we allowing that tail to wag this dog? We’ve paid our taxes over the years. Isn’t it time now our rights are defended upheld and enforced?”
Gibb concluded his presentation to loud applause from Bob Lake residents.
“I can tell you that in the last three months there’s been no file that’s consumed more of my time or more of my attention than this one” said Reeve Brent Devolin. “I received emails and phone calls I would say in excess of 200.”
Council has been consulting legal counsel and is looking at options.
The launch abuts a dam that as Devolin explained to the room was constructed by private landowners back in the logging era and which was eventually sold to the government. The MNRF-owned dam is part of the Trent-Severn Waterway feeder system.
“Unfortunately the dam was sold only” Devolin said. “No right of access no property associated with it road allowances. There’s nothing on paper.”
The reeve said this was the first in a number of complexities surrounding the situation.
“The second complexity is that you live on a lake that’s at capacity and there is no division of lots that are permissible” Devolin said. “It is a unified lot it cannot be divided.”
The property of which the boat launch is part is currently for sale.
Devolin said the township is investigating possible locations for another boat launch elsewhere on the lake and the results of that investigation are not yet known.
“I’m hoping in September that that is known” he said.
There is also the legal route to enforce a right of way over the property but according to the reeve that process is not as straightforward as some may think.
“The litigious right is not a fast one” Devolin said. “That’s probably a one- to two-year process at best. We certainly have not given that up.”
After meeting with lake residents Devolin said it seems there is no interest in property owners uniting to purchase the property.
“It has become pretty clear to me . . . that collectively you have no appetite for that” he said.
Given there are more than 100 lakes in Minden Hills township Devolin said council has no interest in having the township purchase the property.
“The precedent of us acquiring it outright is not supported by council” he said adding that conversations are continuing with the owners of the property and reps from the TSW. “At this time there is no magic wand in respect to this. The litigious right in the end may be the solution. We cannot dictate what their [the property owners’] actions are. I’m as unhappy with this situation as you are.”
The Times contacted Michael John Hotchkiss-Earl a Belleville resident whose family has owned the property for the past century. Hotchkiss-Earl is looking after the sale of the property on behalf of his uncle.
“I don’t really feel that way” Hotchkiss-Earl said when told Bob Lake residents say their boats are being held hostage. “I’m trying to sell a piece of property.”
According to Hotchkiss-Earl the barricade at the boat launch stems from a situation that actually began last summer when a boat had gotten loose on a boat owner using the ramp.
“They basically told me I had an unsafe boat ramp” he said. “I don’t need the liability.”
Hotchkiss-Earl said he’s had a no-trespassing sign on the property near the launch for about a year but that it hasn’t been heeded.
Earlier this year he put up a chain at the launch with a sign.
“I put up a little sign explaining things” he told the paper. “As soon as I put it up someone ripped it down and threw it on the ground.”
Hotchkiss-Earl said he replaced the sign only to find it torn down again. So he erected a barrier using pieces of flagstone.
The Times asked w hy the barrier couldn’t be removed to at least allow Bob Lake residents to take their boats out of the lake for this year.
“Nobody’s asked me to do that” Hotchkiss-Earl said. “If they pay to put the stones back . . . that’s something I might consider.”
On the potential sale of the property Hotchkiss-Earl said “I have been approached but that would be a business question” adding he’d prefer to keep details about any potential sale to himself.
He also referenced the fact the lake is at capacity and that the township will not allow for a severance of just the boat launch from the property.
Earlier this week Devolin told the paper that following further conversations he’s hopeful the property owners will agree to a window of time during which the stone barricades will be removed and residents will be able to remove their boats. There will be public notification if such an arrangement can be reached.